If you’ve heard of Yasmin Nair, you have an opinion about her. Her work doesn’t evoke lukewarm reactions in people. Depending on who you ask, she’s a leader, an icon, a teacher, a radical, a contrarian, a troll or all of the above. I don’t always agree with Nair, but I like the way she pushes our cultural buttons, forcing me to consider and reconsider my own politics. Nair challenges the status quo and the identities we take for granted, asking the kinds of questions that many won’t. She keeps us accountable.
I first met her while filming a documentary at Center on Halsted last year. Nair was one of the panelists at Queer Is Community, an event I helped organize as a town hall meeting to discuss racism and transphobia in the Lakeview community. I asked her about her perspectives on these subjects, particularly in the light of the previous summer’s Take Back Boystown events. She mindfully informed me that it was part of a larger issue: the historical way that our city subjugates those at the margins. For Nair, it wasn’t just a Boystown problem. It was a Chicago problem.
While we spoke, we were routinely interrupted by janitors and maintenance men around us going through the daily grind of keeping the Center running, a job as thankless as it is noisy. At first we tried to stop for each disturbance, but as the noise became the norm, Nair insisted on continuing to speak louder than the sound. No one was going to silence her.
Last week, I met with Nair to discuss her critical work, particularly a recent piece that went viral from her own website and Bilerico, entitled “Gay Marriage Is a Conservative Cause.” Nair attributed her refusal to be silent with her education at an all girls’ school. From an early age, Nair was taught to value her perspective as a woman in a world without men: “They literally told you to go out and change the world.” When looking at her work today, she states, “This is what I was raised to be.”
Nair says “not being apologetic” is important to her perspective, as a queer person and a woman of color.
“Why a lot of people oppose me is that they don’t get that. They’re not used to queer women of color who talk back, who won’t just fulfil their diversity quota. And they don’t like it when women of color in particular insist on analysis and economic critiques, instead of depending on our personal stories to evoke sympathy. My weirdest and most racist opponents are white (and sometimes brown) sectarian leftists who condescend to tell me that I should be taking on white supremacy or racism and leave marriage alone. Clearly, the irony in their words escapes them. ”
Nair has led an eclectic life, moving from her home in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Kathmandu, Bombay (now Mumbai) and then back to Calcutta before moving to the U.S. She says living in Kathmandu as a child was especially formative.
“I think of it in idyllic terms, regardless of the reality I understand on another level,” Nair said. “Kathmandu has such a place in culture. In the 70s, it was a place where all the hippies went, the countercultural Shangri-La.”
As someone living outside the boundaries of what society says is acceptable, the place will forever have a symbolic place in her subconscious.
Today, Nair lives with her cat, Toby, on the border of Uptown and Andersonville in an apartment that’s a testament to her diverse past. She is an avid collector of Hello Kitty paraphernalia and recalls going to McDonalds to purchase every single one of their Happy Meal miniatures, as they were a recent toy tie-in. Upon entering her apartment, I was as struck by the numerous posters of Marilyn Monroe as her endless library, and that Nair was as able and willing to talk to me about Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears as she was Foucault.
This is not a woman you can pin down.
This is precisely what makes her work so interesting in a time of the politics of the expected, the majoritarian nature of us vs. them. Last year, Nair gained attention as an avid critic of the community’s lynching of Chick-fil-a, as something of a symbolic political sacrifice, and she’s long stood as a critic of the politics of “gay marriage.” (She shuns the term “marriage equality.”) If you visit the website of Against Equality, the collective she founded in 2009 with Ryan Conrad, you can find a rabbit hole of articles calling out marriage for its racism, classism and neoliberalism. Although Nair’s work has garnered more attention recently, she’s been at this game for some time.
Nair finished her Ph.D. at Purdue in 2000 in the department of English and describes her previous academic work as “very 90s” and “all about queer theory and deconstruction.” Like the institution of marriage she’s been an avid critic of, Yasmin Nair later came to see that queer theory was a “conservative movement,” finding it inherently apolitical. When she started lecturing at the University of Illinois in Chicago, her colleagues Walter Benn Michael and Jennifer Ashton kept pushing her out of her queer theory comfort zone, asking: “What does it mean to simply critique representation?”
It was then that Nair realized that queer theory wasn’t going to offer the economic analysis she needed.
“We often believe that queerness resists neoliberalism, and it really doesn’t,” Nair states.
To explore that, Nair needed to get away from her queer theory roots and start asking questions about the role of sexuality and identity within capitalism. This was a long process.
For those unfamiliar with her work over the past decade, “Gay Marriage Is a Conservative Cause” provides a perfect crash course on Nair’s politics. Written after Jon Huntsman’s recent endorsement of marriage equality and call for the GOP to join him in supporting the issue, Nair looks at this as emblematic of a larger issue:
“All of this has led gays and their straight allies to exult in having the support of conservatives. Apparently, there is nothing that confirms that a cause is right and progressive and just dandy more than the fact that a bunch of fat cat capitalists who have supported the looting of the world and generally have appalling politics around race, gender, and neo-colonialism also support it.”
Nair says this highlights a reality that Against Equality has argued all along:
“There has never been a separate left case for gay marriage. Nothing that the left, progressives, or liberals have stated in support of gay marriage has ever been anything but a profoundly conservative argument...The surprise is not that gay marriage is now being embraced by conservatives and neoliberals. The surprise is that it took them so long to do so.”
Although Nair has written several previous articles on the subject (including one wittily titled “Gay Marriage Hurts My Breasts”), this was a new challenge for her -- to put her a lifelong analysis of marriage into a very succinct thesis and, for her, an uncharacteristically short piece. In writing it, she gave herself a prompt: “1500 words or less.”
Nair argues, “Someone needed to call this out as plainly and bluntly as possible.”
Nair states that she’s been tired of her liberal, “lefty” friends “trying to push this around as if it were a progressive cause. Gay marriage is conservative. Claim it. Acknowledge that.” She needed not only to speak truth to power but to those around her.
Nair feels that gay marriage has “long been the blind spot in left politics, despite the fact that it’s a disaster.” She cites an essay from AQ co-founder Ryan Conrad that breaks down the funding for marriage equality, showing how it diverts resources from other causes. Looking at the de-funding of AIDS organizations in the state and the closing of LGBT youth organizations at the time of the 2009 marriage campaign, Conrad writes:
“The gay-marriage campaign has been sucking up resources like a massive sponge, corralling everyone to give up their last dollar and free time, leaving little sustenance for other queer groups doing critical work in our communities...While essential services are disappearing, organizations are closing, and new gaps in services for aging LGBTQ folks are being identified, the marriage campaign in Maine is spending money with abandon. The No on 1 group spent close to $6 million dollars over the duration of the campaign, taking in $1.4 million dollars in donations in the first three weeks of October alone. In a state with a tanking economy, this kind of reckless spending on a single issue campaign that isn't even a top priority for most LGBT folks is blatant and unrestrained classism at its worst.”
According to Conrad and Nair, the idea “funding marriage first” will fix all of our problems is far from the case.
“People say you can fund marriage and other things, but it’s not true,” Nair states. “If you have $100 dollars to give, and you want to donate your money to a group and if you’re told that all your problems will be solved with one cause, that’s where you’ll put all or the bulk of your money. People don’t have infinite resources.”
She cites states like Connecticut that have poured resources into marriage, just to see all of their problems remain and the organizations who said they were going to work on those issues pull out. For Nair, “gay marriage is a selfish movement.”
Nair cites health care as central to this reality:
“In Connecticut and Massachusetts, the state seems to say that since you can get married, you must. Marriage is no longer a choice even. People with domestic partnerships are now being told that they can’t keep their benefits with a partnership. They have to enter into civil unions. They have to realize that they are creating a situation where people are coerced into getting married.”
Earlier this year, the Huffington Post covered a growing trend among heterosexual couples to be covered by their employers under “domestic partner benefits.” A personal trainer in Chicago was even able to get on his roommate’s insurance plan after filling out a simple company form. According to HuffPost writer Katherine Bindley, these people would lose their coverage if marriage passes.
The only way to retain their insured status is marriage, which isn’t an option for heterosexual folks.
On the subject, Nair says, “No one should have to get married to have health care. I’m often told: If you want to fight for universal health care instead, no one is stopping you. But there is no choice here: gay marriage makes it plain that we choose marriage or we choose benefits for all.”
This also goes for hospital benefits. Last year, Obama passed legislation that expanded hospital visitation rights, allowing friends and non-relatives to visit their loved ones in the hospital. According to Nair, many proponents of marriage equality opposed or disparaged this legislation, saying it diminished the benefits of marriage.
Nair states, “It’s a beautiful thing to be told that your best friend can exercise rights on your behalf. But no, it was only about marriage. This is proof positive that the gay marriage movement doesn’t give a whit about expanding rights to other people.”
Instead, Nair quipped that we have to move away from marriage equality to focus on issues that affect the larger queer population:
“Queers are not simply defined by queer issues. A queer person is someone who also works in a factory. A queer person is someone who also works in an office. Queer issues are the same issues that are facing other people. Queer people occupy other realms. Queer people are affected by this economy. So, how is gay marriage making it better? Trans and queer youth and adult sex workers on Halsted Street are still going to be policed and battered by the cops. They are still going to be surveilled by the Center on Halsted. They are still going to be imprisoned in disproportionate numbers. They are still going to be targeted.”
To Nair, the idea that marriage will fix our youths’ problems is the most “outrageous, insensitive, doltish, demeaning argument ever.” She argues that instead, they need “support from schools and family, programs in schools and communities to help nurture them as they come to an understanding of their sexuality. A sixteen-year old is not going to get married, and marriage should not be their best hope.”
We need to do more, and as someone who works with youth and within the Chicago school system, Nair knows some already are, against odds: “We’re doing everything we can, but the f*ckers are taking our money away.”
As an activist, Yasmin Nair hopes that marriage will come quickly so the community can move on.
I asked Nair why her criticism of marriage pushes so many buttons. While knitting a scarf on her couch, Nair laughed.
“I’m not arguing for gay politics in the way they’re understood," she said. "I confuse and contradict. Most mainstream gay people and many straights hate me.”
As someone who supports marriage equality, I don’t hate Nair. I think of her as an important component of an evolving conversation, one that needs to include critical and incendiary voices like hers. I don't know what our community would be without her.
After finishing my tea, I left her apartment feeling challenged and a little rattled, forced to reconsider my deeply entrenched beliefs. If marriage passes this week in Illinois, I will celebrate, but also stop to consider what my celebration means. At a time when we take our political discourse for granted, Nair makes us think about our politics. What do we talk about when we talk about marriage?